‘Let’s Dance’: Reflecting on David Bowie’s legendary impact on dance music
David Bowie’s death sent a hush across the world, catalyzing a collective moment of silence with greater unanimity than perhaps any public figure since John Lennon. From the resulting outpouring of elegies and tributes from musicians, writers, world leaders, and the rest of us, it is abundantly clear that the performer was a sum greater than the whole of his staggeringly impressive body of work. Though Bowie lived far more than a full life in his 69 years, his death still possessed a quality of utter untimeliness. The back of the album artwork for Ziggy Stardust, his seminal album, reads: “TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.”
Bowie lived his live at maximum volume, never dipping a notch below. It’s easy to forget that the Starman, who released his final album, Blackstar, only days before his death, had been battling cancer for the last year and a half of his life. Bowie retained an impish youthfulness that made him seem thirty years younger, and made his death all the more shocking.
Untimeliness aside, David Bowie’s passing was so significant because he made such an astronomical impact on the modern state of music. Though this feature will examine Bowie’s impact on electronic music specifically, he left his mark in parallel ways across practically every genre that persists in the Western world today.
A number of electronic artists have paid tribute to Bowie since his death, but his imprint on the dance music scene was prevalent long beforehand. Last year, Alesso dominated the electronic mainstream with his career-defining electro-pop hit “Heroes,” which directly pulled lyrics from David Bowie’s classic of the same name. Simultaneously, a British DJ by the name of David Zowie burst into relevance with “House Every Weekend.” Yet, Bowie’s presence in the dance and electronic realm reaches far deeper — and in far more impactful ways — than the numerous homages to and appropriations of his career. David Bowie integrated futuristic themes and electrifying music tropes that paved the way for a diverse and multifaceted musical movement prior to its embryonic stage and built a culture around himself which pushed the limits of what an artist can be, and foretold what musical culture would become, even if accidentally. Though we can reflect on the efficacy of his agenda, Bowie was just being Bowie.
Bowie as a progenitor of dance music
Some of David Bowie’s foremost hits would pave the way for dance music in generations to come, both in their groove and their futurism. His flawless execution of musical repetition centered around bass-driven loops in songs like “Let’s Dance” was ahead of his time, and served to provide a massive platform for the rhythm-focused music that was burgeoning simultaneously with disco. The most iconic instance of this comes in his Queen collaboration “Under Pressure,” which would not only prove to be one of the most defining songs of the 1980s, but of the 1990s as well, following Vanilla Ice’s appropriation of the riff for “Ice, Ice Baby.” “Heroes,” too, saw Bowie (with frequent collaborators Brian Eno and Tony Visconti) integrate electronic music tropes in a groundbreaking way, with scintillating synthesis that still registers as mature production in the digital era.
Bowie’s futuristic cosmic motifs
The importance of the future as a thematic fundament of electronic music is laden in the music itself, but also plays a significant part in the surrounding culture. As producers experiment with unheard sounds to perform on electronically-advanced platforms, futuristic concepts sensibly follow suit. Daft Punk notably toyed with the idea of technologically-founded music by donning robot helmets, insinuating that the musicians were machines themselves. Nero broke out by welcoming audiences to the apocalyptic reality of the year 2808. When David Bowie rose to prominence in 1969, the notion of the future lay in the Final Frontier: space exploration. While The Beatles explored their cerebral cortexes and Led Zeppelin ventured into Middle Earth, David Bowie ascended to the stars.
David Bowie released his debut “Space Oddity” as a single on July 11, 1969 — nine days before Armstrong and Aldrin first stepped onto the Moon. Bowie’s use of space exploration as a preeminent musical theme began almost a decade before the release of Star Wars, beginning with his journey into space as Major Tom, and evolving into his alien alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust. Though Bowie’s integration of astral subject matter into his work is can be seen as classic, or perhaps even dated now, in his time, it was utterly groundbreaking.
Bowie’s predictions of the modern industry
Though electronic music predates the advent of the Internet, its exponential growth has been predicated upon online distribution more so than any other genre. As with hip hop, samples and remixes pervade the genre to such a degree that copyright infringement can be a crippling impediment, leading many producers to advocate, as Gramatik would say, “digital freedom,” or seek ways to bypass copyrights. At the turn of the millenium, David Bowie predicted both the transformation of the dance music landscape with the internet and the eventual downfall of copyrighted music.
In the video below, taken from his 2000 interview with BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, Bowie predicts the impact that the Internet would have on the music industry with uncanny accuracy:
“There is a breakdown [in the relationship between artists and consumers]…personified, I think, by the rave culture of the last few years, where the audience is at least as important as whoever is playing at the rave.”
Jeremy Paxman’s incredulous responses to these statements clarify how ahead of his time Bowie’s ideas on the topic were. When Paxman posits that the Internet is “just a tool,” Bowie confidently responds, “No, it’s not…It’s an alien life form.”
Two years later, in an interview with The New York Times, Bowie made a similarly prophetic prediction of copyright’s devolution:
” ‘I don’t even know why I would want to be on a label in a few years, because I don’t think it’s going to work by labels and by distribution systems in the same way,’ he said. ‘The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it’s not going to happen. I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing.’
‘Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,’ he added. ‘So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen.’
Though Bowie’s prediction of copyright dissolution seems to be a decade premature, his comments mapped out the music industry’s trajectory remarkably, as labels and copyrights have had to shift their distribution structures and a majority artists have adapted to source the bulk of their revenue from touring.
Alternate Personae/stage presence
More so than any other genre, the modern era of electronic music transforms artists into characters of sorts, as the artist abandons their individual personhood to assume their performative identity onstage. Behind the lights and Corinthian pillars, Mike Lévy becomes the dark prince Gesaffelstein. Joel Zimmerman evolves from Purrari-driving Twitter instigator to icon when he dons his fabled LED helmet. Dillon Francis vacillates between his own identity, a hip German deep house enthusiast, and a variety of other roles on a daily basis.
In the zeitgeist of Western music, this transformational culture owes everything to David Bowie, who adopted a new persona for practically every album and tour. He went to space as Major Tom and returned to Earth as Ziggy Stardust the androgynous, alien Starman; The thunderstruck Aladdin Sane lent way to Bowie’s legitimately insane Thin White Duke after a musical pilgrimage to Germany and a staunch diet of peppers, milk, and cocaine. Bowie’s adopted personas infiltrated his stage performances as vividly as any DJs’ have since, and introduced a vibrant, bombastic style of performance that undoubtedly set the foundations in place for live music’s evolution into the concert spectacles that permeate today’s culture.
Bowie’s impact on our culture was undeniably pervasive, and though his passing is tragic, his imprint is far from gone. In dance music’s continuously evolving musical, thematic, and performative tropes, we’ll always be able to detect direct and indirect impressions from David Bowie’s body of work, even hough the Starman is now resting in the sky. Thanks for coming to meet us, Mr. Bowie. You certainly blew our minds.